A couple of years ago I discussed the dance references in James Bereford's The Miseries of Human Life (1806). I recently came across a sequel of sorts: The Comforts of Human Life (1807), by Robert Heron, which offers some point-by-point rebuttals, which are supposed to be funny, of Bereford's miseries. Happiness not being as good a topic for satire as misery, it doesn't work quite as well, and it is mixed in with some fairly heavy-handed advice. As one contemporary reviewer observed in The British Critic, Volume XXIX, February 1807,
This is a grave but very dull attempt to controvert the "Axioms of Misery" detailed and exemplified in the humourous publication, called the "Miseries of Human Life," which, from its originality, and its humour, excited much of the public attention. Instead of the miseries of the Country and London, we have here the comforts of both, the comforts of travelling, &c. But the bolt was already shot, and so much more are the miseries of life in tune with the popular feeling than the comforts, that the former has been multiplied into seven editions, while the comforts, we fear, as in the moral order of things, will be overlooked and neglected. These comforts somewhat resemble a fire of straw, there is so much smoke, but little warmth. (pp. 212-213)
Heron, of course, disagrees; he wrote that Miseries was too much in earnest to be funny, that the "vein of irony [was] not sufficiently rich, nor sufficiently continuous." And while he acknowledges that "John Bull" (the English) "is best pleased with those who take the greatest pains to convince him that he is Miserable -- that he is utterly undone", he hopes that "a book of Comforts may not be unacceptable, as a second course or a dessert after a book of Miseries."
Sadly, the fact that a nineteenth-century book is dull does not prevent me from dutifully reading it for the dance references. But, having done so, I think that Heron has it exactly backwards. While there are some flashes of humor in Comforts, for the most part it tips over into didacticism and simply giving good advice for making the best of bad situations. That's useful, though a lot of it is restating the obvious, but it mostly fails as satire.
The dancing references are still of interest, however, even if they are among the least funny bits in the book.
Like Miseries, Comforts is structured as a series of conversations between various combinations of the earlier work's chronically unhappy Timothy Testy and Samuel Sensitive and the newly-added Charles Chearful [sic] and Martin Merryfellow, who always look on the bright side of life. I'll quote at length below.
Merryfellow offers a lengthy paean to dancing in Dialogue the Fourth, Comforts of Sports and Games, most of which would be perfectly at home in the introductory "history of dance" section of a nineteenth-century dance manual:
Sen. I was once, you may remember, fond of Music and Dancing. My taste for Music is, now, the torment of my life. I dance no more.
Merry. Dance no more! Dance no more! I dance still with as much agility and vivacity, as when we were together at the Dancing-school Balls, in the recreations allowed us from our early studies. I intend to continue to dance, till I shall be in the condition of the Frenchman mentioned by Goldsmith--
"And the gay grandsire skilled in gestic lore,
"Has frisked beneath the burthen of fourscore."
Dancing, not intemperately nor unseasonably pursued, is the most salutary of exercises. It puts every joint, limb, and sinew of the body in free and lively motion. It quickens the flow of the blood, the pulsations of the heart, the performance of all those functions within the frame by which life is sustained and exhilarated. It enlivens the nicer sensations of the body, and with these, all the delicate sensibilities of the soul. It attempers brisk motion to divine grace of attitude and gesture. It allies amusement to refined and elegant art. It assembles the young in parties of pleasure in which innocence, vivacity, and delicacy necessarily preside. It restores to those who are fast advancing in middle age, all of the fresh vivacity and gaiety of their spring of life. It has often made the withered spinster forget her wrinkles; and has made the senior despise his gout and his corns. There is much of native chearfulness in the simple, natural exercise of dancing, by those who are in the prime of their health and their years. To those who fondly attempt to shine in it, -- though nature and the waste of years have denied them the power, -- it must have some secret charm by which it is bewitchingly pleasing to them. Their intermixture in the dance has, in the most admirable degree, the power to divert the spectators and the junior partners in the activity of the diversion, with all that is most ludicrous in Comedy and Farce. Do the feet of the Dancers beat time to the Music? How charming this consent of the Music of sounds with that of motion! Besides, how ingenious those imitations partly natural, partly allegorical, of acts in real life, which the different species of Dances present! I love the Scottish Country-Dance and Reel, the English Hornpipe, the French Minuet and Cotillon, the German Walse, the Spanish Fandango, the Morrice-Dance of the Moors, the pretty wanton trippings of the Dancing-Girls in Egypt, and all the pantomime movements of the young companies of priestesses of pleasure attached to the temples of Bramah in the East. I am charmed no less with the sight of the dance than with actually taking a part in it. How I admire the light and varied steps of a Parisot and a Hilligsberg! Much more, however, am I pleased with those Dances, many-figured, and woven into a regular Drama; in the performance of which numbers of Sylph-like figures, male and female, move, with enchantingly airy activity, on our Opera theatre; and of which the pantomimic power carries almost as much meaning to the mind through the eye only, as if the ear were addressed in the Dialogue of a legitimate Drama.
Chear. Enough of Dancing!
By the end of this I was in enthusiastic agreement with Chearful: enough!
The interesting bits to me are the mention of dancing school balls, which are well documented in London in the early nineteenth century, and the list of dances:
I love the Scottish Country-Dance and Reel, the English Hornpipe, the French Minuet and Cotillon, the German Walse, the Spanish Fandango, the Morrice-Dance of the Moors...
The Scottish country dance? That's an interesting take on what is generally considered an English dance form. The reel, hornpipe, minuet, and cotillon are all dances one would expect to be mentioned. The awareness of the waltz as early as 1807 is interesting, since it was not yet a popular dance in England. And I am not sure to what degree the Fandango would have been seen as a social dance or perhaps a school recital piece, or whether that and the Morris ("Morrice") were the start of a list of less social, more performance-oriented dance styles.
But at least bad dancers provided amusement value to the spectators:
To those who fondly attempt to shine in it, -- though nature and the waste of years have denied them the power, -- it must have some secret charm by which it is bewitchingly pleasing to them. Their intermixture in the dance has, in the most admirable degree, the power to divert the spectators and the junior partners in the activity of the diversion, with all that is most ludicrous in Comedy and Farce.
Not exactly biting satire, there.
Nota bene: the quotation about the "gay grandsire" was taken from Oliver Goldsmith's classic poem, "The Traveller, Or, a Prospect of Society" (1764).
Thankfully, the other dance references in Comforts are much less wordy and occasionally slightly funnier.
From Dialogue the Second, Comforts of the Country, comes a discussion of the virtues of a rainy day in the country, edited by me to remove a lot of irrelevant discussion of indoor pastimes other than dance:
...when, by a small effort, the mind turns to within-doors amusement, how pleased it feels with itself for the triumph over its disappointment! The resources are most comic to which a family will, on such an occasion, apply themselves, in order to find at home what they cannot go to seek abroad. The very endeavour, even though awkward, excites general merriment...
[A rainy day] gives interest to a country dance, even with my lady's woman and the butler, not without the help of a chair or two, as dumb partners, to make out the set.
The first part is common sense: if people couldn't go out, they would improvise entertainment at home. But the dance-specific comment is great: if there aren't enough dancers, not only would they incorporate the servants ("my lady's woman" = her personal maid), they would bring in chairs to fill out the set. That actually made me laugh aloud, because I, and probably everyone who teaches any form of set dance or practices such dances at home, has had occasion to bring in a couple of chairs to stand in for missing dancers. Imagining doing so in early nineteenth-century costume is even better.
Going back to Dialogue the Fourth, Comforts of Sports and Games, the discussion moves on to some of the precise situations addressed in Miseries, among them the misery of stepping on your partner's gown during a dance and tearing it:
Sen. "Tearing your fair partner's drapery, by the awkward movement of your foot and leg in a dance?"
Merry. Oh! the Lady can never be displeased with an accident which only evinces your activity to please her, to exceed your dexterity! She may attribute it to the agitation excited by the power of her charms. She may consider you, as amorously anxious to get as near to her as possible. And, it is an old observation, that, on all occasions, the women like to be approached by men who are bold and spirited, though a little awkward. Your partner is pleased: the rest of the party are diverted: and you go down the rest of the dance, only with so much the more vivacity. Besides, the accident, by the apologies it calls for, brings you into more familiar and intimate conversation with your fair partner. Many a lively fellow, just fallen head and ears in love, has contrived by such a seeming awkwardness, to tear his partner's gown and petticoat, in hopes to make his way by the rent, into her good graces, so that he might afterwards acquire a right to take still greater liberties with her under garments.
Well, let's hope this is satire. Ladies appreciate having their gowns torn while dancing because (1) the gentleman is tripping over himself to please her, (2) he is "amorously anxious" to get really close to her, and (3) it gives him a chance to have an "intimate conversation" with her by way of apologizing. I don't think this would have actually worked that well, even two hundred years ago, as I doubt that I am the only woman who would be more impressed by someone being careful not to step on my gown and whose "intimate conversation" under those circumstances would be along the lines of "excuse me, I have to go somewhere private and pin this rip in my dress now."
In Miseries, Testy gloomily suggested that the lady would prefer to amputate the offending limb.
The last sentence of this "comfort" is both verbally wittier and further over the sexual-harassment line: by tearing her outer garments, the gentleman hopes to (literally?) create a path ("by way of the rent") to her undergarments, so he can tear them too.
I think we can probably live without that particular approach at historical reenactment events.
The next bit, also from Dialogue the Fourth, is not much funnier, but at least is less sketchy:
Tes. "Dancing to the music of drunken, unskilful fidlers, who keep you incessantly changing from jig to minuet -- and from minuet to jig?"
Merry. He who persists to dance to such music, must take a pleasure in the dance, or in his companions in it, which is not to be spoiled by the worst efforts of a drunken fidler. -- Besides, the worse, the more irregular, the music; -- so much the greater is the merit of the dancer that can pursue it, and keep time with it: -- while, on the other hand, he who is fond of dancing without being a proficient in it, -- has in the badness of the music, a good excuse for not beating time to it, and for the awkward prancing, skipping, and hobbling of his steps. -- The exquisite dancer may reflect with pleasure, that between him and the musicians, is exactly reversed the fact of the famous epigram --
"How ill the motion with the music suits!
"So Orpheus fiddled, and so danced the brutes!"
The bad dancer may console himself with the reflexion, that the motion and the music sit each other well, since he cannot, for his life, dance worse than the musicians play. -- Take it how you will; here is Comfort, and nothing but Comfort."
Anyone who actually dances to bad music must enjoy it on some level, and if they can actually keep time to it, they must be a great dancer. But if they're a bad dancer, they shouldn't worry; just blame the bad dancing on the music! Practical, but not terribly funny, though the idea of a minuet being interrupted by the music switching to a jig is mildly amusing.
And, finally, from Dialogue the Seventh, Comforts of Social Life:
Tes. "The teizings of a Dancing-Master, insisting on a boy or a girl to turn out the toes, to hold up the head, and to beat time with the steps to the music?"
Merry. Oh! in this case, the importance of the personage and of his instructions, cannot fail of reconciling the little pupil to every injunction he gives! Every lesson, however otherwise teizing, is comfortable as a preparation for the joys of a dancing-school ball.
Oh, certainly, every child who was miserable in dance class was comforted by how well they were being prepared for a dancing-school ball. One wonders whether the author had ever taught children. Or known any.
That is the last of the dance references; sadly, Comforts did not address, humorously or otherwise, the difficulties of the specific figures mentioned in Miseries.
I can't really recommend The Comforts of Human Life for pleasure reading, but if anyone wants to slog through the whole thing, it is online at archive.org.